05 January 2014

What's Mine Is Yours

There are four characters among men:  One:  He who says, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours--this is neutral (some say this is Sodom.)  Two: He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine--this is a boor.  Three:  He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours--this is a saint.  Four:  He who says what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine--this is a wicked man. --Pirke Avot

The older I get, the deeper my appreciation grows for you and not me.  The alloyed absorption of youth but a brief and necessary training camp for the deeper rivers of the narrative of meaning.  Like downy feathers falling off a young bird, the flamboyant and fearless focus of youth gives way to the utterly humbling realization that life's inherent goal is to simply to move it forward, pass it along, into the hands of the next generation who, having learned to walk and then run, grabs hold, sprints for a time, and then slows, to pass along along yet again.

This year Grandma's yahrzeit candle burned for thirty-six hours, a whole half-day past its allotted amount.  Her sons, when living, didn't observe her yahrzeit and I don't begrudge them that, though I used to.  That was my heroic stage, when the conquering Macabi spirit, in its devouring zeal, insisted on bearing a new standard for the family line.

But it's different now.  One sees more compassionately, with the progression of time, the presumed failures of earlier generations.  Having come to understand Jewish history with a greater degree of nuance and an ongoing revelatory certainty that the more one reads the less one knows, my appreciation for the flawed decisions of my father, grows.  This is a gift of age.

I'm fifty now, a number that represents two seemingly opposite things to me.  First, it's only half the distance to my goal of living to one hundred.  I still feel very, very young.  And second, since Dad died at 58, it seems ancient, dangerously close to death.  As if I can see the potential for my own rapid deterioration with the same speed with with it occurred in the winter of 1983.  A gust of wind, then gone.

Upon the two sides of this odd, measuring scale are the actions we use to weigh out our lives.  And here, as ever, the Sages are so instructive.

To be dismissed out of hand is the bland neutrality of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours."  A division of no consequence, lacking engagement.   Similarly, "what's mine is your and what's yours is yours" seems to cede all power to the other, refusing even the base instinct to do something with one's life.  It's obverse, "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine" is the avaricious whim of narcissistic youth.  A necessary stage, perhaps, but if left unchecked, becomes greed and according to the Rabbis, the breeding ground of evil.

But the saintly position, "what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours" is the one the deepest of them all.  It's the one that centers a person in a greater narrative beyond the self.  It says your uniqueness is a blessing, bestowed by the cumulative forces of familial genetic configurations and the unpredictable prevarications of history.  It means you are who you are because of everyone and everything that happened before and therefore what you will give back to the world is through the agency of the other. It privileges service to others.

It's not about me it's about we.

I remember the day Grandma told me I was a Jew.  I already knew I was, of course, but at the time was not yet able to discern that her declaration came from beyond her, passed through her and into me, where it now goes, each day, out in to the world.  I couldn't see it then but so clearly see it now.

Then it was through her cooking, her Yiddish accent, her dark Russian eyes, her arms, her warm embrace.  Now it's the big picture, the scope of history, the candle that burns beyond its allotted hour.

It's funny how these things work.  I light the candle to remember the mother of the men who didn't remember in that way but who, in any event, are now long gone.  But for a whole half day after the commanded remembrance is credited to me, your light, Grandma, burns on.

What's mine is yours, what's yours is yours.

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